The summer film season is finally upon us ladies and gentlemen, a time when intelligent film-making takes a backseat to mind-numbing comedies, hackneyed sequels and brainless actioners.
The first major production of the summer is “X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a film I gratefully credit for ending my insomnia and giving me the best nap I’ve had for months. Apart from the napping allure, there’s absolutely no plausible reason to watch the “X-Men prequel unless you’re a) a Hugh Jackman groupie (and apparently, there are legions of them in this country), b) an unsuspecting 10-year-old comic geek or c) an aspiring film pirate plotting to record the movie with your cheap camcorder and sell it for LE10 in Attaba.
With very limited choices in theaters, I opted with a heavy heart to go instead for a romantic comedy starring an actress I vowed never to watch again: Julia Roberts.
Surprisingly, Roberts’ new film shattered my dim expectations. “Duplicity, co-starring Clive Owen, is easily one of the best American romantic comedies I’ve seen in a while; a smart, sassy, sexy first-rate entertainment that stands as the perfect antidote for the noisy summer flicks.
“Duplicity is Tony Gilroy’s directorial sophomore effort following his 2007 Academy Award nominated success “Michael Clayton, one of the finest corporate thrillers of the decade. Like “Clayton, his new film is also set in the corporate world.
“Clayton was dark, dour and stern.
“Duplicity is the complete opposite: sunny, effervescent and awfully witty.
The patent organic cynicism of the former continues to preside over this film though and is the sole factor that prevents it from reaching classic status.
The film opens six years ago at a 4th of July party organized by the American embassy in Dubai. A laid-back and ultra confident Owen approaches a breezy, unconcerned, cleavage-toting Roberts with a pick-up line possibly lifted from “The Art of Seduction. She brushes him off, yet the sexual tension between them is indubitable.
“Are you always like this? she asks. “No, he responds. “I sometimes act like this, but this is completely different.
A minute later, she gets him in the sack, drugs him, scours his room and leaves.
Flash forward five years, the pair smash into each other in New York, this time, in an entirely different setting. Owen is Ray Koval, a former MI6 operative recently turned business spy for multi-corporation Equikrom.
Roberts is Claire Stenwick, a former CIA agent, also gone private.
For a number of months, Claire has been planted as a mole in Burkett & Randle, Equikrom’s biggest archrival. Ray, she finds out, is the agent hired to deal with her. Unlike “Clayton, the battleground here doesn’t involve pesticides, pollution or poisonous products. Here, the two corporate giants compete for skin products, shampoos and diapers. The term espionage thriller thus takes an entirely different meaning.
Through a series of carefully placed flashbacks set in London, Miami, Rome and Cleveland, the mystery behind Ray and Claire’s relationship steadily begins to unravel. Without giving away too much, the overtly hostile relationship between the two, who are apparently in love, is cover-up to conceal their real plan, which is to con both companies the moment any of them come across a major discovery.
Burkett & Randle eventually does. I will not even uncover the nature of the product, but it is huge indeed.
Revealing any more plot details might spoil the film. All I can say is that the story is jam-packed with double-crossings, triple-crossings and unexpected twists. The taut structure Gilroy employs is impeccable, incorporating elements of various genres into one refreshing cocktail.
In the age of Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Kate Hudson and the likes, clever Hollywood romantic comedies with major stars have become the rarest of commodities. Few romantic comedies, if any, in this decade can stand up to “It Happened One Night, “The Awful Truth, “Trouble in Paradise or “His Girl Friday.
New York Times critic A.O. Scott suggested a couple of years ago that the reason behind the dumping down of the genre in the past few decades pertains to the fact that most stories feature ordinary characters no different than the real audience.
Cary Grant, Claudette Colbert, William Powell, Barbara Stanwyck were anything but ordinary, and they didn’t pretend to be. In the 30s and 40s, the golden age of American comedy, people went to the movies to experience a life beyond their reach and fall in love with the stars. The stars acted accordingly; they were elegant, graceful and astute. Dialogue was brisk, refined and fast, quicker than people speak in real life. Stories were infused with invigorating energy and real buoyancy.
Compare these films with last year’s two biggest rom-coms, “Mama Mia! and “What Happens in Vegas, and the picture instantly becomes murky.
Perhaps that’s why “Duplicity feels so fresh. Gilroy’s signature outstanding dialogue is snappy and swift, coiling like cherry around the actors’ tongues.
The humor ranges from the deadpan to the in-your-face slapstick – as in the hilarious slow-mo fight between the CEOs of Equikrom (Paul Giamatti) and Burkett & Randle (Tom Wilkinson) at the opening credits.
The real strength of the movie is its leading man and woman. As I mentioned, I’m no fan of Julia Roberts, the most overrated, least eclectic actress in Hollywood. In more than 30 films, Roberts has exhibited little magnetism and no range whatsoever. The most recent example of her limited acting capabilities can be seen in “Closer (2004), also co-starring Owen, where her weak presence was outweighed by the strong performances of her co-stars.
“Duplicity is probably the first film where I actually like her. Sporting a slightly fuller figure, Roberts’s Claire is a predator; sensual, enigmatic, calm and resolute, playing nicely to Owen’s vulnerability.
Owen, on the other hand, owns the screen. His Ray is cool, debonair and super slick. Armed with a slew of designer suits, he’s the kind of guy who can get nearly any woman he sets his eyes on – the kind of guy every man wants to be.
What Owen doesn’t possess is the affability of Cary Grant, still the greatest star in film history. Owen’s remoteness is a partial reflection of the film itself.
“Duplicity is a battle-of-the-sexes comedy as much as a corporate satire.
Romance occasionally gets lost in between.
Claire and Ray spend the most part of the film playing tricks on each other.
Both don’t trust each other, and they’re quite turned on by these games and deceptions. Mind-games have always been a fixture of most relationships. Claire and Ray are no different; the kind of advanced contest they’re engaged in is what separates them from the rest of us.
The backstabbing, paranoia, shifting alliances and breakneck rivalry are all fixed staples of Gilroy’s corporate environment; a place where the type of classic Hollywood romances can’t exist.
As much as I loved “Duplicity, compelled by its charm and intelligence, and thrilled by the Gilroy’s sly touch, I left the film somewhat craving for warmth, for the kind of genuine assurance my favorite rom-coms offered in abundance. The age of romance is well behind us, and all we’re left with are the beautiful relics hapless romantics continue to cherish.